Blood, Guts, and Literature: Maggie Nelson’s Art of Cruelty

Posted on | July 27, 2011 | Comments Off

The Art of Cruelty, I had to assure many people as I was toting it around, is not a handbook; the “art” of the title is literal.  Maggie Nelson’s interest is in aesthetic cruelty, specifically how art forces us to confront and negotiate the indignities, violent and otherwise, that people inflict on one another, and whether cruelty committed in the name of art can claim moral cover for itself.  As Nelson explains at the outset, “Given brutality’s particularly fraught relationship with representation, twentieth-century art that concerned itself with its depiction or activation often found itself in turbulent ethical and aesthetic waters.”  How does one make art about the horrors of recent decades without recapitulating them? real money casino app for android

Given that the book treads into relatively heady waters, I was pleasantly surprised to see it land on the cover of the Times Book Review a couple weeks ago.  It’s not that it’s academic as such (we know how NYTBR feels about that); after all, it’s published by Norton.  Rather, it’s the sort of book that can casually reference Hegel and the Hostel movies with equal authority.  Nelson’s efforts to discern what makes for worthwhile cruelty carry her across the artistic landscape, from art (Francis Bacon, Kara Walker) to literature (Ivy Compton-Burnett, Sylvia Plath) to film (Fassbinder, Lars von Trier) to pop culture more broadly (all of reality TV ever).  If there is a unifying theme—and sometimes it feels as if there isn’t one—it is that artistic cruelty is admissible when it isn’t of a dictatorial variety.  Artists can get away with cruelty when it provokes engagement, ambivalence, and the freedom to reject its tyranny.

Nelson is most comfortable in the register of abstraction.  She returns repeatedly to the notion of “space”—the extra breadth created when a work of art refuses to manipulate the viewer, or reader, into a preordained response: “This space exists,” writes Nelson, “when an artist may hope to give other people his or her problems, but also knows the transmission cannot be surely made, and that the fallout is likely to be unpredictable, disorderly.”  She tends to advance her argument by quotation, followed by a declaration of agreement or disagreement, rather than allowing herself the room (or space, if you will) to accrue rhetorical momentum of her own.  Instead, Nelson throws out references like darts: sometimes they hit, but sometimes they go flying off the board.

For all her conceptual vagaries, Nelson isn’t squeamish in the face of the cruelties she describes.  By its very nature, it’s impossible to read The Art of Cruelty without indirect exposure to some of the more gruesome images Nelson marshals to make her case: the torture porn billboards of the movie Captivity, the all-too-familiar violations of Abu Ghraib, Jenny Holzer’s disturbing meditation on rape in Yugoslavia.  How do these cruelties rank in Nelson’s effort to “differentiate between works of art whose employment of cruelty seems to me worthwhile… and those that strike me as redundant, in bad faith, or simply despicable?”  Nelson is an acute, subtle interpreter of art, but she’s less clear on her overarching vision of what, exactly, cruelty is. Perhaps cruelty shouldn’t need defining—we know it when we see it, or feel it—but by the end, cruelty feels like a catchall for all manner of twenty-first century anxiety.  Though Nelson assures us that she knows the difference between violent and cruel writing, she never articulates it: what distinguishes cruelty from violence—intention, malice, or pleasure taken in the abjection of another?  The Art of Cruelty is better at raising these questions that at answering them.

And yet somehow Nelson gets away with it.  Partially, as Laura Kipnis’s review notes, this is a tribute to her strength of voice.  Nelson trusts her readers to recognize her references, and to know the art works, and if they don’t, too bad; she won’t give away ground to explication, that graveyard of good writing.  Nelson deals only in art and reaction. On fiction writer Brian Evenson: “I don’t entirely buy Evenson’s sleight of hand, by which representations of violence in literature slide into being simply ‘precise.’” Catching herself in a false equivalency: “One form of self-deception: to offer reversals that have rhetorical impact but crumble when pressed into meaning.” On playwright Martin McDonagh: “Now, to whom, exactly, a play like McDonagh’s The Pillowman might be cruel, and what the nature of that cruelty is, I cannot say.”  It’s rare for irresolution to make for good criticism, but in writing her own incoherent, irreconcilable responses to art into the text, Nelson shows just why her subject is so tricky: for the art of cruelty to be valid, as opposed to just cruel, it has to abandon control over how its audience might respond.  And while Nelson’s evasiveness can be frustrating, it’s never cruel.

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